Fifty years ago, I listened to Sarah Weddington make her arguments for the first time before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Roe v. Wade. It was Dec. 13, 1971. I had been there in January when Dr. Milan Vuitch challenged the Washington, D.C., abortion statute. That was the first abortion case heard by the Supreme Court. The court made a muddled decision on Vuitch, so the matter was not resolved.
Sarah, who was only 26 years old and had never argued a case, spoke clearly and convincingly that the Texas law was oppressive and unfair to women. She said the law was unconstitutionally vague and violated a woman’s right to privacy.
After the arguments, Sarah and Margie Pitts Hames, who had argued the companion case, Doe v. Bolton, invited me to join them for coffee in the cafeteria downstairs. Soon after we sat down, Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Harry Blackmun sat down at the next table. They both smiled at us, and Justice Blackmun gave us a friendly wave.
On later occasions, I sat in the chambers and listened to arguments by attorney Frank Susman in other abortion cases. One of those in which I had testified was the Webster case. I testified in the federal district court in St. Louis that it was not necessary to perform abortions in the hospital. On the basis of my testimony, that part of the Missouri law was thrown out by the district court
In 1976, I organized the Western Regional Conference on Abortion in Denver, and it was held at the former Colorado Women’s College. I invited Sarah to be the keynote speaker. She helped bring hundreds of people to this successful conference, and she got a standing ovation at the end of her speech. Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, who had introduced and sponsored the 1967 Colorado abortion reform law, was also a speaker at our conference.
Nearly 40 years later, Sarah was the main speaker at a 40th anniversary appreciation banquet that I organized to thank all those who had helped me since I opened my private medical practice, Boulder Abortion Clinic in 1975. Dick accepted my invitation to introduce Sarah. They were old friends, since Dick had helped Sarah in her work for women’s rights as a Texas legislator in the 1970s. Our anniversary event, which was attended by many of our friends in Boulder, was sort of a family reunion. Frank Susman, who has argued more abortion cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than any other attorney, came from out of state to be with us. Frank had helped Sarah prepare for her oral arguments before the Court in 1971.
Sarah died of natural causes on Dec. 26. She had been a dedicated champion of women’s rights to safe abortion and other reproductive health care from before the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down Jan. 22, 1973. As President Jimmy Carter’s special assistant, Sarah played a critical role in getting Ruth Bader Ginsburg appointed to the U.S District Court in Washington.
Sarah and I became close friends and were in frequent contact over the years. We called each other often to discuss abortion politics and other developments in women’s health care. She loved my wildlife photos and posted them in her office. She spoke at many of the medical conferences I attended
Sarah was always eloquent and passionate in her defense of women’s freedom. This was the cause of her life, and she made a difference that is impossible to measure. It was a privilege to know her.
The freedom that Sarah Weddington won for women in Roe v. Wade is under concerted attack today. The Republican Party has used the abortion issue and Christian anti-abortion fanatics for 47 years to win elections. These efforts have succeeded. President Donald Trump won over 80% of the Christian evangelical vote in 2016 and 2020. The three anti-abortion justices he put on the U.S. Supreme Court give an insuperable majority against abortion.
Sarah and I agreed on many things, but the most important was: No woman’s life and health should be at the mercy of the next election.
Dr. Warren M. Hern is a physician, epidemiologist and director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic. He was the founding medical director of the first private, nonprofit abortion clinic in Colorado, which opened in Boulder in November 1973. Boulder Abortion Clinic is his private medical practice opened Jan. 22, 1975.